By Jay Friedman
“Kaiseki” is a word appearing on an increasing number of Japanese menus around Seattle, but there’s confusion about the meaning. Understand the Japanese language, and you’ll start to understand why
You pronounce “kaiseki” just one way, but can write it two ways, with different kanji (Chinese characters) conveying different meanings. One (懐石) has the same kanji as chakaiseki (茶懐石), which is a formal tea (cha) ceremony experience, with kaiseki a humble meal (full of rules) that serves as a prelude to enjoying matcha. In fact, kaiseki actually means “stones in the bosom,” referring to the stones (seki, or 石) that monks would place in the folds of their robes (kai, or 懐), close to their stomachs, to ward off hunger.
Today, kaiseki (会席) is better known as a social gathering (kai, or 会), with seating (seki, or 席), that’s typically celebratory and pays reverence to sake as much as tea. Relaxed in its rules, this form of kaiseki has become luxurious and elaborate compared to its humble roots.
Both forms of kaiseki feature small plates served in succession, rather than all at the same time. Today’s kaiseki changes the sequence of the small plates in the meal, pushing rice to the end not to conflict with the sake.
Hiroko Sugiyama, who operates a culinary school called Hiroko Sugiyama Culinary Atelier and whose chakaiseki class I experienced, summarizes it well: “Kaiseki is a really seasonal course meal that contains a whole variety of taste essence [five essences and umami, she’d eventually explain] that’s so beautiful to look at, is extremely thoughtful and can be very expensive.”
In fact, you’ll typically find kaiseki dining in high-end Japanese hotels or other first-class restaurants. The definition of kaiseki continues to evolve. For example, at Murata’s Kikunoi, he describes modern kaiseki at his restaurant as a mix of four categories of cuisine: tea ceremony tradition (chakaiseki), vegetarian temple food of Buddhist monks (shojin ryori), imperial and aristocratic samurai cuisine (honzen ryori), and the food of the ordinary Kyoto locals (obanzai ryori). Some will spend a lifetime saving money for such an experience, but will have lasting memories of a fabulous meal.
IBUKI staff experienced Kikunoi’s early summer “Lunch Kaiseki” in June at the Akasaka location. The menu reveals a fairly typical sequence of courses at a kaiseki meal, though there’s leeway for variation:
1. Sakizuke 先付
A small appetizer to whet the palate.
2. Hassun 八寸
Items from the mountain and the sea, setting a seasonal theme.
3. Mukozuke 向付
A dish on the far side of rice and soup on a chakaiseki tray; it was traditionally broiled or steamed fish, but is now more likely to be sashimi.
5. Futamono 蓋物
A soup with simmered ingredients. (Some places would serve niimono 煮物 , a boiled or simmered dish, instead.)
6. Yakimono 焼き物
A grilled dish, typically fish.
7. Nimono 煮物
Boiled or simmered dish.
8. Hashiyasume 箸休め
Meaning“resting chopsticks,” hashi-yasume is a small palate cleanser between courses.
9. Gohan, Konomono, Tomewan ご飯、漬け物、とめわん
Rice, pickled vegetables and a form of soup. (“Tomewan” means it’s the “stop” or final dish.)
10. Mizumono 水物
Traditionally a fruit course (“mizu” means water), this dessert course is now more varied and can include cake, sorbet, etc.. as well as fruit.